If you’d asked me to name an Australian artist when I was young, two names would have popped into my head – Russell Drysdale and the indigenous artist Albert Namatjira. As I grew up, other names came to the fore, such as William Dobell, Sidney Nolan, Margaret Olley, Margaret Preston, Jeffrey Smart, and Brett Whiteley, not to mention newer indigenous artists like Rover Thomas and Emily Kngwarreye. Russell Drysdale, in fact, disappeared a little from view – at least, I stopped hearing him mentioned. So, when I discovered recently, via Lisa of ANZLitLovers, that the Tarra Warra Museum of Art in Victoria was having a Russell Drysdale exhibition on the theme Defining the Modern Australian Landscape, I knew I wanted to see it. Fortunately, we had a trip planned to Melbourne during the exhibition. Guess where I went this week!
The thing I have always liked about Drysdale (1912-1981) is that the paintings I knew were simple – in the stark sense, not in the meaning sense! This starkness equates, for me anyhow, with the spare in writing – and regular readers here know that I like the spare. I love the fact that paintings that look simple or easy to comprehend contain layers of feelings and ideas that only become evident if you spend time looking at them. But, of course, as usually happens with exhibitions of an artist’s oeuvre, I learnt things I hadn’t known in my simple (and here I mean simple in terms of understanding) youth. Here are some of those things* …
Drysdale’s early landscapes were rejected by the Modernists
Apparently, the Melbourne Modernists didn’t think landscape was a proper subject for art – despite the fact that Drysdale’s landscapes, particularly those from 1940-1941 when the criticisms were made, were not pretty or simplistically representational. One of his artistic influences was Modigliani, which is obvious in the elongated figures he painted into his landscapes in the 1940s, such as his 1941 “Man feeding his dogs”.
As time progressed, however, his images became redder, starker and darker – and yet, the exhibition tells us, he wrote in 1956:
The vast spaces of the north, endless and old. It’s very hard to reorient oneself. Outside the traffic rushes by as in every city. The hurrying crowd, dressed and neat, and rain splashing on the roads. Neon lights and no stars; but the loneliness of the desert plains seems friendly, and infinitely peaceful. (Drysdale’s journal, 13/10/56)
Friendliness and peacefulness are not, I think, the usual feelings you take from his outback paintings. There is certainly the loneliness, but alongside it is a sense of the hardness of the life, of resignation, and, more positively, of resilience. But, there is also, from the painter, a sense of respect and affection. I found, via Google, an oral history interview he did with Hazel de Berg in 1960, in which he said of the landscape:
It is an environment which I love and which I like to go back to, and for me it has a tremendous appeal, it is continually exciting, these curious and strange rhythms which one discovers in a vast landscape, the juxtaposition of figures, of objects, all these things are exciting. Add to that again the peculiarity of the particular land in which we live here, and you get a quality of strangeness that you do not find, I think, anywhere else. This is very ancient land, and its forms and its general psychology are so intriguing as compared to the other countries of the world that it in itself is surprising.
I wonder what Murray Bail would say about this?
Drysdale was rejected for war service
Drysdale had a detached retina from his teens, which left him essentially blind in one eye and hence unfit for war service, so he (unofficially) contributed to the war effort through his paintings. During the Sydney Harbour submarine scare of 1942 he moved to the safety of Albury. His paintings at this time included soldiers on the Albury station platform. I had not seen these paintings before and found them particularly moving – dark, somewhat disproportionate figures that look weary but resigned. There’s “a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do” sense about them. (See Soldiers, Albury Station, 1942.)
Drysdale was concerned about environmental degradation
In 1944 the Sydney Morning Herald commissioned Drysdale and a reporter to record the effects of the severe drought that was occurring in western New South Wales. His drawings of dead trees and animals, eroded landscapes, and tired people were printed in the newspaper, and brought him to wider public attention. The exhibition included reproductions of these newspapers. Newsprint is not the ideal medium for such works, but you could still see the power of his feelings about what was happening to the land and the people. The works (paintings and drawings) that came out of this time include somewhat Dali-like surreal but also grotesquely anthropomorphised trees.
He went on in the late 1940s to paint scenes from the old gold mining towns of Hill End and Sofala. The exhibition notes talk of his depicting the impact of “bad farming, reckless mining and unrestrained civic expansion”.
One of the most famous paintings which comes from his Hill End-Sofala period, The Cricketers (1948), is in the exhibition. Its depiction of cricket players dwarfed by stark buildings in a destitute landscape is not the usual way this subject is rendered.
Drysdale was one of the first modern Australian artists to paint indigenous Australians
The exhibition included a few paintings from the 1950s to 1970s which depict Aboriginal people. The exhibition notes describe his concern and empathy for Aboriginal people, for the way they’d been “relegated to the margins”. The notes explained that he first depicted them in the traditional “white settler view of forlorn people”, but then moved to showing them as “silent figures standing in their country” and finally onto a more “abstract representation of their mystic connection beyond the material world”.
One of the strongest paintings from this period in the exhibition, and one of my favourites, is “Bob and Maudie” (1972).
I’m going to finish on a quote that was not in the exhibition, but that I can’t resist. It comes from his longstanding friend, artist Donald Friend. Friend wrote:
He loved gaiety and wild talk and drink, laughter, companionship. Everything, in fact, that was unlike those superb sad empty pictures he made in which a town was an empty street, a pub was one bored man leaning against a verandah post.
Well, he was, like me, the Aquarian – the escapist who could disappear into other shapes…
It’s interesting – the notion of escaping into darker reaches – but Drysdale isn’t the only person to do that, is he.
* Unfortunately, because Drysdale died in 1981, his paintings are still in copyright and so I can’t include any here. However, a Google Images search on his name will retrieve many examples.